A well-known priest’s anti-Semitic remarks — and the refusal of President Lech Walesa to condemn them — have triggered a controversy in Poland and around the world.
Jewish leaders in Poland expressed deep concern that the affair might set a precedent for the acceptance of open anti-Semitism in mainstream political discourse prior to Poland’s presidential elections this fall.
“Nothing good has been said by the president, which is perhaps the worst part of the affair,” said Stanislaw Krajewski, Polish consultant for the American Jewish Committee.
“This means to me that the president is ready to fight for the votes of anti- Semites in the presidential elections,” added Krajewski, who is also the Jewish co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews.
The Rev. Henryk Jankowski, a close friend and longtime political ally of Walesa since the rise of the solidarity movement in 1980, used anti-Semitic language in a June 11 sermon in the northern city of Gdansk at a service that Walesa attended.
Jankowski later reiterated his statements in a declaration to the press.
He accused Jews of “satanic greed” and other actions that caused historical “tragedies,” including both World War II and the rise of communism.
In the sermon, in which he expressed his support for Walesa in the upcoming elections, Jankowski said, “Poles, bestir yourselves. We can no longer tolerate being governed by people who have not declared whether they come from Moscow or Israel.”
He said that the “Star of David is implicated in the swastika as well as the hammer and sickle.”
Jewish organizations in Poland immediately condemned the priest’s remarks and expressed surprise that Walesa had not opposed Jankowski’s statement on the spot.
In a statement to the Polish Press Agency on June 14, Jankowski denied that he was an anti-Semite.
But at the same time, he reiterated his view in even stronger language.
“The Star of David symbolizes not only the state of Israel, but also the Jewish nation,” he said. “Like all other people, the Jews happen to do unbecoming things in public life just as they happen to do very noble things indeed. I am talking about banking and finance circles. Their actions have led to many a human tragedy.
“Also note the political and public activities in all areas of life,” he said. “All those elements, that satanic greed — we can say this with no doubt – - were the cause of communism and of World War II.”
At a news conference Sunday, Walesa refused to repudiate the priest’s remarks, adding that Jankowski was a good friend of his and was not an anti-Semite.
During an interview on Polish radio later in the day, Walesa said, “I am a friend of Father (Jankowski), a friend of many years. I want to say that (he) really is not an anti-Semite. And because I know this, I do not speak up. But I fear that some want to create anti-Semitism in Poland, and this is why I do not like this.”
The priest’s remarks, coupled with Walesa’s ambivalent reaction to them, raised concern and outrage among Jews and drew protest from other quarters.
Konstanty Gebert, a noted Jewish journalist, wrote in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on Tuesday that Walesa “has given his official blessing to anti-Semitism and has attempted to gag is critics through blackmail.”
Gebert said it was “shameful and grotesque” that Jankowski maintained that he was not an anti-Semite while making anti-Semitic pronouncements.
The Polish PEN Club, a writers group, appealed to all authorities and organizations to express a clear stand on this “blind anti-Semitic hatred.”
Some Church officials voiced disapproval of Jankowski’s statements, but as of Monday night, the Polish Episcopate Conference had not spoken out.
But the secretary of the Roman Catholic episcopate, Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, told Gazeta Wyborcza that the sermon “was irresponsible” and “in one move ruins the achievements of a long work of cooperation between the church and the Jews.”
Gdansk Archbishop Tadeusz Goclawski told a radio interviewer that he deplored Jankowski’s words.
“That utterance was wrongful, and I, as the bishop of Gdansk, want to apologize,” he said.
Also, the Polish Episcopate’s Commission for dialogue with Judaism issued a statement last Friday, which, while it did not mention Jankowski by name, clearly condemned his statements.
“It does not do good to the church or to the respect of human dignity to humiliate individuals, social or national groups, state or religious symbols,” the commission said.
“On those who preach God’s word rests an exceptional responsibility, because their vocation is to teach how to overcome evil by goodness.
“We ask for forgiveness especially from those who felt harmed by the words uttered and are fearful. At the time we express our hope that the Catholic- Jewis dialogue, conducted despite many difficulties, will not weaken,” the commission said.
Jews and others who protested the affair condemned the overall lack of a strong response.
“It is a very painful thing,” said Mira, a Jew in Krakow. “The worst of it is that Walesa seems to applaud what Jankowski said. It is very worrying.”
Krajewski of the AJCommittee and the Polish Council of Christians and Jews said, “The affair marks an introduction of anti-Semitic rhetoric from the margins to the center of Polish politics, and the only way to push it away is to have strong authoritative public statements by the church leaders and the president.”
“The later it is done, the weaker the result will be,” he said.
The incident has also provoked a storm of international criticism.
Serge Cwajgenbaum, the secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, addressed a formal letter of protest to Wales and to Jozef Glemp, the primate of Poland and Archbishop of Warsaw.
“This type of sermon, and the ambiguous attitude of certain members of the Polish episcopate, as well as of political figures, tarnish the image of Poland and undermine the dialogue between Jews and Poland,” Cwajgenbaum wrote.
In Israel, Knesset speaker Shevach Weiss telephoned Walesa this week to ask him to clarify what happened.
In an excerpt of the telephone conversation, which was broadcast in Polish on Israel Radio, Walesa said that as long as he is president, there will be no anti-Semitism in Poland.
“The Jews have already paid a dear enough price for it to happen again,” he said.
Weiss said he believed that the Polish leader was being sincere.
“From what he said in our conversation, I got the sense that he is sorry for these developments,” Weiss told Israel Radio.
American Jewish groups blasted both Jankowski and Walesa.
“The recent disgraceful and outrageous anti-Jewish sermon of Father Henryk Jankowski in Poland represents the dark, ugly side of murderous pathology that has persisted for centuries,” Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious director for the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.
The Anti-Defamation League addressed a letter to Walesa criticizing him for not repudiating Jankowski’s comments.
“As president, you have an opportunity to shape the attitudes and standards of the people of Poland,” ADL National Chairman David Strassler and Abraham Foxman, the group’s national director, said in the letter.
“Unfortunately, your silence in the past week regarding Father Jankowski’s statements has given his racist words greater legitimacy,” they wrote.